A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Course Hero. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Study Guide." February 27, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Man/.


Course Hero, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Study Guide," February 27, 2017, accessed August 16, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Man/.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Themes



Throughout the novel, Stephen Dedalus seeks artistic inspiration wherever he can find it: in brothels, gutters, the natural world, his classroom, friendships, and the depths of his own nightmares. He doesn't always realize he is looking for inspiration; he finds himself driven toward certain impressions, or ways of viewing the world and doesn't necessarily think of them as linked to artistic pursuits. For instance, when he is outside at recess in Clongowes, he longs to be lying in front of a huge, warm fire, where he can continue his close observations, indicating that he is aware that his nature is different from his peers. Only as he achieves maturity does he shift from a focus on religious inspiration toward an aesthetic one, using his observations of language and life to create art.

Inner Conflict

Looming throughout the first half of the novel is the question of Stephen's vocation. Should he pursue the priesthood—a choice society would view as wise—or will he follow his spirit's calling and become a writer? His master at the Jesuit school believes Stephen is well suited for the priesthood. Throughout the novel, Stephen certainly demonstrates an understanding of guilt, as when he has a nightmarish vision of the afterlife as an unbearably hot, dank plain populated by half-human, half-goat figures. However, just as often, he lets his mind wander and writes poems or records impressions for them. Stephen's inner conflict plays out in the exaggerated way he imagines punishment for his sins; in the torture he feels when his superiors in academic institutions speak of rigorous virtue—as when Father Arnall speaks about Sebastian; and in the drive he uses to push himself forward after he makes his final decision. His impassioned walk to the sea near the novel's end is as much an attempt at escape as a reaction to profound restlessness.

Spiritual Homelessness

Having or lacking a home is an important theme throughout the novel. Home means several things to Stephen. In the literal sense his family has no steady home. Because of Simon's financial irresponsibility, the family must continually pack up and move from place to place. Similarly, Stephen must change schools and academic situations. In a broader, more symbolic sense, Stephen is without a path, so he cannot feel at home in the world. A path—the priesthood—has offered itself to him, but Stephen does not feel entirely comfortable following it, so he chooses instead to leave it, as a first step toward his own exile. He wanders literally through the back alleys of Dublin and spiritually through the twists and turns of his own intentions. The novel's ending can be seen as his acceptance of exile, as a sort of homecoming, then, regardless of whatever insecurity an artist's life might offer. Because Stephen feels confident in his decision, he is more completely at rest.

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